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Cord-Cutting 101
Spend Less Money, Get More TV
October 2015

Editor’s Note: The Village Geek is a new TownDock.net column. The focus – technology that works for small town life. Join Roger Bullis in column #1 as he shows how to save $ while improving your TV watching options.

able TV costs a lot of money when you pay for channels you don’t watch. Ditto for satellite TV.

When I was an exasperated DISH subscriber I finally found their cheapest service — $27 a month with DVR, service that is well-hidden on their web site, and yet we still didn’t watch much of the basic TV they had. Then there was the 2 year DISH “contract” and the battle with the rep after the 2 years were up to actually stop paying and quit the service. It took a half hour of arguing before they would free me from their clutches. And pity the poor customer under a DISH contract who moves into an apartment or condo where there are no satellite dishes allowed. Think the “contract” goes away? It does, only after you pay a price. When I attempted to stop my service after a year of distorted truths about what DISH promised me, I was told that I would owe them $240 dollars to get out of the their grasp. I then vowed never again would DISH and I have a relationship.

Web searches will reveal great unhappiness with DirecTV and various cable services as well. So the cord-cutter solution is:

1) Use an antenna so you get local channels and receive the absolute best quality picture for your expensive flat screen as well as networks and sub-channels like ME TV.

2) Stream TV over an internet connection.

Using both options gives you great flexibility and might convince you to become a cord-cutter.

Our DISH bill was originally just shy of $100 a month before it dropped to $25 with the basic package. That’s $1200 a year for TV. Sound like you?

Let’s talk.

And concentrate on #2, the newest TV viewing option – streaming.

Many of you will already have Netflix and other services running on a Smart TV or DVD player or the ROKU player. Good job! Skip to Things to Watch below.

For the rest of you, a brief explanation. ROKU is the most popular stand alone TV streaming device. Basically it is a stick ($49) or small box ($59-$89) which lets you watch TV over your internet service. You get to watch TV from the internet without a cable or satellite contract and without an antenna. This is cord-cutting with the exception of the corded internet service and/or a robust WiFi service) which is needed for streaming TV.

The cheaper devices are WiFi only and connect to your over-the-air (OTR) network the same way your phone does. The expensive ROKU is more powerful and faster than the others and allows you to plug into either WiFi or an existing wired network. You need an internet download speed of at least 3 mps download to watch reliably and the higher/faster the mps number the better particularly if your house has many WiFi or networked phones, dvd players, Ipads etc. Cable and DSL internet speeds with home WiFi generally work well for most users.

If you get the more expensive ROKU 3 box and some ROKU 2 boxes you can also plug a portable thumb drive or portable hard drive into a ROKU USB port and watch shows and photos you have recorded on those USB storage devices. In addition the Amazon Fire TV box has a voice search feature for Amazon TV services and the ROKU 3 has a wireless remote control with a headphone jack for watching with headphones.

ROKU is competing with Smart TVs and DVD players which have built-in programs to play Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the like. The advantage of ROKU and the other two major players with stand-alone streaming features – Google Chromecast and the Amazon Fire TV – is that there are generally many more services available on these stand alone devices plus they update services much quicker than the Smart TVs and DVD players. I have a “smart” DVD player that was sort-of-smart 5 years ago and has not been updated since. That old DVD player is so slow and buggy compared to ROKU and company that it is painful to watch and we don’t. (There is also the Apple TV device, Playstation Game box and many other ways to stream but I will stick to the devices I have used for comparison.)

My old sort-of-smart DVD player has about around 12 TV services. Newer DVD players claim around 300 services. ROKU as of this writing has 2000 official services and many unofficial ones. That’s a heck of a lot of TV offerings for $50.

Another advantage is that all of the new streaming devices now have ways of streaming sources wirelessly from your smart phone or computer. Yep, whatever you can see on that small or large computer screen will show up on your TV. Cool.

Why ROKU? I have owned and tried the ROKU stick ($50), the Roku 3 box ($89), the Chromecast stick ($35), the Amazon Fire Stick ($50). I have not tried the Amazon Fire TV box($89). There are unique advantages with each brand which I will discuss another time. For the truly geeky the Amazon Fire devices have the coolest and most flexible programming and hacking options. Services such as running your own free media server and allowing most all Android apps — including games — to play on on your big TV screen.

For most people, however, the ROKU devices are the simplest to use with plenty of flexibility.

ROKU has:
1) simple easy-to use remote control units.
2) a nice graphical interface for finding your way around different services.
3) very simple and effective searching for shows and films across services
4) the greatest number of channels offered.

Simply plug the ROKU device into an HDMI input on the back of a TV, switch to the video source with your TV remote and follow the on-screen instructions. Voila!

Things to Watch
Some of the most popular streaming services on ROKU right now are: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Pandora, Newscaster, Instant Watch Browser, TED, Pandora and TuneIn Radio.

You probably already know about Netflix, the most popular TV/film streaming service. For $8.99 a month (for new customers) you can watch thousands of films and TV shows including Fargo, M*A*S*H, House of Cards, and old seasons of Mad Men. Highly recommended.

Amazon Instant Video has thousands of free Prime movies and TV shows for Prime subscribers at $99 a year (includes two day free shipping on Prime goods you buy) plus you can rent other movies and shows on demand. Subscription Prime movies include Lawrence of Arabia, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Jerry Maguire and the TV shows include older HBO series like The Sopranos and Band of Brothers. Very nice.

Hulu Plus is available for network shows (minus CBS) and US and foreign films for $7.99 a month. A lot of the classic British and New Wave French films are here along with films by Ingmar Bergman. The network shows (ABC, NBC, FOX, Comedy Central) have fewer commercials than over-the-air showings and most shows are available a day after originally airing. Shows can be available up to a month after airing so that there is little need to working about recording them for viewing later. This service is great if you need to watch network shows like Late Night and The Daily Show and don’t have over-the-air service and if you like classic foreign cinema. And if you like commercials with your pay service.

Crackle provides feature films for free and is owned by SONY. Some commercials are interspersed. Films change monthly. Limited choices but the price is right.

Pandora is the popular free or paid (no commercials) music streaming service which lets you choose your musical genres and artists.

TuneIn radio provides access to hundreds of over-the-air radio shows around the globe. When we are out of the state we listen to North Carolina Public radio with this service. If you are a jazz fan there are many options including my favorite public radio jazz service in Tacoma, Washington KPLU.org and Jazz24.org. Free and highly recommended.

Newscaster has a variety of updated news clips from various sources. Instant Watch Browser is a service that tells you what new films and shows are streaming on Netflix. And TED gives you hundreds of the TED lectures about technology, science, education and culture. Free.

Other Channels I Like
PBS has dozens of episodes of most major PBS shows including Masterpiece Theater, Mystery, and American Experience plus documentaries such as Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts. Free and highly recommended.

ACORN TV is $45 a year and has complete series episodes of many British TV shows including Foyle’s War, Doc Martin, and Upstairs Downstairs. There are many series you have not seen before in the U.S. and a good selection of British mysteries. Very good.

CNN, BBC UK news and other international live TV channels are available on what’s called a ROKU private channel – all from a service called Nowhere TV from Nowhere Man. Video resolution is not always the best but plenty good enough for free and the service usually loads quickly. A web search reveals this is likely the most popular of the private unofficial ROKU channels. For many ROKU popular apps you simply goto the store within the app and choose. For a Private channel app you can search ROKU private channels and find the app website for a link which sends you to your Roku account for installing. Aside from this one extra step for installation, highly recommended.

USTVNOW, another private channel offering, is a paid service for watching network shows live. It has a free trial and then pay plans from $19 to $40 a month which can include such other channels as CNN, TNT and TBS. You can continue to get free channels after the 45 day free trial but you need to do a little hacking to stream from your PC (the free stuff) to your ROKU TV and the video quality is really lousy for the continued free stream. This is one way to get live network news and other shows you might watch on cable. Recommended as a paid service if you travel a lot and watch live TV on the ROKU or on a smartphone or tablet.

NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX news channels on ROKU are not quite live but their network news shows are available — sometimes within hours of airing live. Bloomberg news is a live news service. Using these news channels on ROKU is one way to watch the evening news, 60 Minutes, Meet the Press and Rachel Maddow. CBS currently has a 24 hour live news feed which is really in its infancy and not quite ready to walk without stumbling.

Final Costs for Us
Our TV bill not counting the internet service that we already have paid for years is around $30 a month for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and Acorn TV. Thus we are saving around $800 a year compared to our extreme DISH days. Given that we already paid for Netflix before, the savings is even greater. Your savings will vary based upon your typical TV paying excess.

Since programs are available on demand, our need for a digital video recorder has pretty much gone away. Add a TV antenna to this mix and there’s not much TV you will miss. Bottom line? We don’t miss DISH or DirecTV one bit.

In a future column we’ll talk about antennas and inexpensive ways to record over-the-air shows for delayed viewing.

The Village Geek on TownDock.net is edited by Roger Bullis. Roger's background? Professor of Communication and Digital Media. Roger is always trying to figure out the next way to enjoy great & cheap technology in a small town.